Our law firm has handled some of the most serious crashes of helicopter sightseeing tours in the country
There has been a disturbingly high rate of fatal helicopter crashes involving sightseeing tours. Between 2000-10, the NTSB recorded more than 140 sightseeing flight accidents nationally, 19 of which resulted in 86 fatalities. Helicopter flights cause more than half of the fatal crashes, and 24 of these fatalities occurred in Hawaii alone.
Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour Crashes
Helicopters that fly tours in the Grand Canyon face many potential dangers. Winds in the canyon can be strong and can propel a hovering or landing helicopter into the walls of the canyon, a danger compounded by a tour company’s possible incentive to fly too close to the rock walls. Also, the canyon airspace can become extremely crowded at peak times and interfere with safe flight. High demand and flight volume can result in inadequate management and supervision, as well as in inadequate maintenance practices. And helicopter tour operators in the Grand Canyon may lack adequate rescue plans to reach a helicopter that has crashed in rocky and remote areas of the canyon.
Hawaii Helicopter Tour Crashes
Hawaii helicopter tours can be endangered by unpredictable tropical trade winds and potential emerging storms. Past crashes have occurred when tour companies have inadequately assessed the weather or environmental conditions, including potentially volcanic ash from eruptions.
Tragedy can also result when pilot workload is compromised by imposing tour guide responsibilities on pilots, possibly distracting them from the safe operation of the helicopter. The presence of water, mountains, and populated areas greatly narrows the field for an emergency landing, if necessary.
New York City Helicopter Tour Crashes
The “doors-off” helicopter tours of New York City can pose grave potential risks to the unsuspecting passengers. In the past the harnesses used to immobilize passengers during these flights can contribute to tragedy. Also, the congested airspace of New York City should be a cause for concern and caution, as is the competition among helicopter tour operators, which may result in a risk of compromising safety to maximize passenger count and profit.
Las Vegas Helicopter Tour Crashes
The many helicopter tours departing from Las Vegas may provide views of the Vegas Strip, the Grand Canyon, or the Hoover Dam. Part time or inexperienced pilots may struggle to safely meet the challenges posed by these flight environments. The tour operator must follow proper procedures and take the adequate time needed to check the wind, weather, and environment in remote destinations such as the Grand Canyon before each and every flight. Tour operators who have sold helicopter tickets in advance of the flight are sometimes reluctant to cancel flights and refund money in hand when adverse conditions do arise.
Intense lobbying by the helicopter aerial tour industry, including threats of operator bankruptcy, has resulted in an almost hands-off regulatory role from the FAA. For example, in response to complaints from Hawaiian helicopter air tour operators that present flight restrictions made their tours less appealing to tourists resulting in decreased industry revenue, the FAA issued exemptions permitting helicopter tour pilots to fly lower and lower. The FAA granted exemptions to several helicopter tour operators to fly as low as 1,000 feet and some as low as 500 feet.
Given the rash of fatal tour helicopter crashes in Hawaii these exemptions are not only unadvisable but they are irresponsible. Low altitude flight poses additional risks including increased crowding of aircraft at certain altitudes especially in low visibility conditions when fixed-wing aircraft may be flying at low altitude to get below the clouds. These exemptions are ill-advised and should be cancelled thereby reverting to the general limitation on helicopter flights to 2,000 feet above the surface for mountainous terrain except for takeoff and landing.
While various helicopter tour companies adhere to a high standard of operation, others simply adhere to FAA minimum requirements. Those operators with operating procedures higher than the FAA minimum standards will often display certificates so indicating.
The primary causes of crashes within the helicopter tour industry are as follows:
- Inadequate management or operator supervision
- Inadequate maintenance practices
- Inadequate risk assessment of weather or environmental conditions
- Compromising pilot workload by imposing tour guide responsibilities
- Incentives to fly too close to fixed obstacles
- Operating in crowded airspace
Virtually all of the crashes within the helicopter tour industry have been as a result of one of the foregoing risk factors, other than where the helicopter suffered an in-flight failure of a safety critical control or system. Such was the case for the 1999 helicopter crash in Herbert Glacier in Alaska resulting in the death of seven people. The helicopter impacted the glacier at a 90 degrees nose down position at 135 KTS.
Later examination of the wreckage revealed that the helicopter had suffered a failure of the pitch servo which drove the helicopter into a rapid descent. The pitch attitude servo had a manufacturing plug come out of place which jammed the selector valve in the full nose down position. The aircraft went from a level attitude to 90 degrees nose down in 200 feet of altitude at 135 KTS.
Helicopter tour operators should be required to adhere to higher maintenance standards than those current FAA minimal requirements. For those missions where the aircraft are used for common carrier purposes, the mechanics should have top-flight training and be highly experienced with a minimum of five (5) years of primary maintenance of rotorcraft. Waivers of any extended use or past regularly scheduled or annual inspections should be the exception rather than the rule. Any helicopter which is not fully in compliance with all regularly scheduled maintenance and component part replacement should be considered non-airworthy and grounded until such time as any maintenance or component part discrepancies are rectified.
Pilots hired to operate tour helicopters should have a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience exclusively in a helicopter with a significant amount in the model or type utilized in the touring operations. Management should insure that all active pilots demonstrate sound judgment and decision-making capabilities that includes verification that pilots are following the designated routes and are complying with all designated reporting points on a common frequency.
Revenue considerations often add pressure to the helicopter operator to depart in marginal weather. Tourists already have bought tickets and will demand a refund if the flight does not depart as scheduled. Both the FAA and NTSB have recognized the need for independent risk-assessment of weather and environmental conditions. In connection with that assessment, there must be no adverse consequences to the pilot or risk assessment manager for the cancellation or re-scheduling of flights due to weather or other environmental conditions such as volcanic ash, military aircraft exercises or major glacier break-up. The pilot has ultimate responsibility whether to launch the flight and to conduct or continue to conduct the flight in view of any adverse weather conditions.
Given the workload demands faced by helicopter pilots, it is unreasonable to impose the additional duties of tour guide upon them. Pilots should be able to concentrate only on providing a safe flight. In too many instances a scenic tour helicopter pilot is asked to devote much of his attention to providing the passengers with continuous narration of the tour area as well as answering questions. This is a serious distraction. Operators do not want to carry a separate tour guide because this would deprive them of revenue from that attractive front left seat. In lieu of a separate tour guide, recorded commentary would serve much the same purpose by relieving the pilot of these additional duties without a significant reduction of ride attractiveness.